St. Mildred’s, Isle of Wight

The following article by Bryan Beggs features two places, which are mentioned and illustrated in ENGLAND’S STORY, Bryan’s latest children’s book… to be launched at our festival on 25th June 2014, where Bryan will be speaking about his book during our Year 6 special day.

St Mildred's churchYachtsmen sailing down the River Medina estuary from Newport to Cowes will see this church quite clearly on their starboard side, when they are about three miles downstream. Ramblers, and those enjoying a pint on the foreshore at The Folly Inn, may have to walk a little farther on to notice it… but from whatever vantage-point, they will have to look to the east, where they will see, sharply defined on the skyline and just visible between the surrounding trees, the needle-like point of the steeple of a church. This is St. Mildred’s Whippingham, pricking the sky like a giant medieval lance.

The path from Newport on the east bank of the river turns inland at the inn and soon strikes diagonally upward across the steepening slope towards the church. One wonders if this was the route taken to the churchyard by those who carried the bodies of the eighty-four German soldiers of the State of Hesse, typhoid victims here in 1794 and possibly veterans of the War of American Independence,[soldiers of the British crown]. At this time the Hessians were part of the Island’s defences against the threat of Napoleonic invasion. One hundred and fourteen years later, the Duke of Hesse, grandson of Queen Victoria, erected a tablet to their memory beside the south door of this very special church.

Most visitors take the easier, sign-posted route down the sharply twisting lane from the main road to East Cowes… here is still the sign, now in modern ‘heritage brown’, that so intrigued me as a boy…. St. Mildred’s Royal Church 100 yards.  How often do I remember during those first visits to ‘The Island’, peering from the upper deck of a bus or through the car window to see this church… and failing… just 100 yards and invisible! I have to admit that fifty years came and went before at last… at long last, on one of those gentle days between the end of spring and the beginning of summer, my wife and I slowed the car and took the turning. I found it hard to believe that this was untrodden ground for us both. Of course it became immediately clear that the road-sign merely meant ‘100 yards to the turning to the church, which is another half-a-mile along the lane, down a gentle gradient. Why a Royal church, you may be wondering? The answer lies in more than its close proximity to Osborne House, the home of  Queen Victoria and her family , as I hope will become clear.

As with very many of our English churches, St. Mildred’s has Saxon origins. St. Mildred herself was a Saxon Princess who died about 700 AD, having been Abbess of three different abbeys in Kent. She was the great-grand-daughter of Bertha, the Christian wife of King Ethelbert of Kent, and it was he, who at his wife’s request received the Pope’s envoy, Augustine on his arrival in Kent in 597 AD. Nothing remains of the original Whippingham church except perhaps for a stone relief set into the south wall of the entrance porch; seemingly of two mounted soldiers jousting?

After the Norman Conquest, in 1066 the church and its lands were given by William I to  William FitzOsbern, thus it seems highly likely that this name was perpetuated in the more recent Osborne House and its estate of 1000 acres, which Queen Victoria and Prince Albert bought from Lady Elizabeth Blatchford in 1845. The facts we have, show that the original church on this site was demolished in 1804 and rebuilt by John Nash; famous for his work in the town of Bath. Queen Victoria decided that although the church was the most convenient for Osborne House, it was too small for the needs of her family, visitors and servants. The second rebuilding began with the chancel in 1854 and as with Osborne House itself, Prince Albert had a hand in the church’s design. Specialist architectural advice came from Albert Humbert, who later designed Sandringham House for the then Prince of Wales. The foundation stone for the remainder of the building was laid in 1860 by the Queen and Prince Consort together, and the whole edifice was completed by 1861.

St. Mildred’s is an excellent example of Victorian gothic design with a most effective ‘lantern’ tower, at the centre of which on the inside, is a replica of the Order of the Garter and above which on the outside, stands the fearsome lance-like steeple. This church is unique in that so many members of the Royal Family contributed to its decor and embellished it with their own talents. In particular the Queen’s fourth daughter, Princess Louise, later Duchess of Argyll, designed the font and worked its carpet surround with the help of her sister Beatrice and their ladies-in-waiting. She also made the beautiful four-foot high bronze figure of an angle lifting Christ from his cross, which used to be in the Battenberg Chapel… sadly this item was stolen in April 1966. The Battenberg Chapel which was once the north aisle of the chancel, was originally reserved for the use of the staff of the royal household. However when Prince Henry of Battenberg died in 1896, just eleven years after his marriage to Princess Beatrice in this church, it was the Queen’s wish that this memorial chapel should be created. The Queen herself made a small lace hassock for the chapel. The centre of the chapel is dominated by the marble sarcophagus of Prince Henry. It was not until 1945 that Princess Beatrice died [she was the youngest of Queen Victoria’s nine children] and was laid to rest with her husband. The chapel now commemorates other members of the Battenberg/Mountbatten family, but not Lord Mountbatten of Burma, whose tomb is in Romsey Abbey.

Bryan Beggs - St Mildred'sThe south aisle of the chancel was the place occupied by Queen Victoria and her family and her chair is still in its original position; the other chairs were removed at the behest of King Edward VII and the more formal pews installed. It is to that king and the rest of the Royal Family of the time that St Mildred’s church owes the supremely beautiful gift of the white marble reredos behind the altar. It was privately commissioned by them in memory of Queen Victoria, and depicts The Last Supper.

The church is cruciform in shape and therefore has two transepts; both have contemporary stained glass rose windows high up on their respective north and south walls, which are miniature versions of those to be found in the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

In this ‘gem’ of a church, can be felt the love and pain of an entire Royal Family… the duty, the joy and the grief that is the common experience of us all. It remains as a statement of their faith and presents us today with an inspiration that transcends the commonplace, for all is harmony within these walls… and outside, the slender steeple both guards and guides us.

England's StoryBryan Beggs flew in the RAF for many years before becoming a civilian helicopter instructor. He was a councillor and then Mayor of the Borough of Test Valley.

He has written ten books, seven of them for children, all of which are sold in aid of various local charities. He will be speaking at the Schools Festival about his new book, ‘England’s Story’, which is a history of England for young minds from 55BC to 2013 and will be sold in aid of the Chalke Valley History Trust.